I love bookstores. Love them. Take me clothes shopping and I turn into the eight year old in the car, whining, "Are we done yet?" while every normal person around me rolls their eyes at my incredible impatience. But take me to a mall comprised entirely of bookstores and I can and will walk around for days, if not months or years, until finally they send a team of scientists after me (à la John Carpenter's The Thing), who discover too late that my body has been taken over by an alien life form that renders me in a catatonic state nestled inside one of those plush, overstuffed chairs, a pile of books surrounding me like a fort.
I unabashedly love bookstores. There is no bigger fan of the bookstore, everything they contain and all the possibilities that exist, than I am. For my latest novel, The Fury, I signed books at 43 bookstores in four days, each store an exciting world waiting to be discovered.
Which is why I'm writing this. Some things about bookstores perplex me. The digital revolution has not yet taken over, and there are those of us who hope that no matter how evolved e-readers get, print and paper will be around for good, that the two can strike a harmonic balance and maximize the total potential audience for readers in the U.S. and the world. But for that to happen, we need to make sure that the brick and mortar proprietors of print stick around. And to do that, they need to evolve, to shirk some tendencies that have long since become obsolete. So here is my list of ten things bookstores can do to help themselves:
1) Don't put the bargain books right in the front of the store. Do you really want the first thing customers to see be the books and toys that nobody wants? Listen, I like bargain books and have bought my fair share. But they're stuffed in overflowing bins, often with torn and cracks pages and spines, thrown about like, well, bargain books. Besides, are people more or less likely to pay $27 for that brand new release if they see they could pluck five from the bin in the front? There should be a section of the store devoted to bargain books, just don't make it the very first thing the customer sees.
2) Make the Children's Books section easier to find. Children's Books are huge. Between Harry Potter, Twilight, Percy Jackson, The Hunger Games and An Unfortunate Series of Events and numerous others, the children's section has brought us some of the most beloved and enduring and popular stories of our time. So why is it hidden in the back, somewhere between Social Sciences and Alternate Road Maps of Northern New England? Put the kids front and center -- and you'll have a whole lot more children and adults browsing the shelves.
3) Shelftalkers really do speak to us. I love browsing a shelf full of books I don't know much about, only to come upon a neat shelftalker dangling below a book with a handwritten recommendation from a real, live bookseller who loved it and wants me to share the joy. Word-of-mouth is the best way to sell a book. Tell me who in your store loved a book and why, and odds are I'll at least pick it up to see what all the fuss is about.
4) Cell Phone Coupons. I have no idea if this is even feasible, but I'll play Steve Jobs for a moment. I enjoy my weekly newsletters from chains and independents, with coupons for that week's new releases or specials on great backlist titles. But I can't tell you how many times I forget to print them out. Send out coupons that can be scanned directly from somebody's cell phone -- and send them out throughout the day. If I'm browsing in a store and suddenly I get a new email with a coupon for "Buy 1 Get 1 Free," I'll be going home with two books, guaranteed.
5) Make every author event available online, ASAP. I'm a Nick Hornby fan, but I couldn't make it to his signing in Union Square. I love crime novels and bookstores geared towards crime junkies, but as a New Yorker I can't get down to renowned indie stores like Houston's Murder by the Book or Phoenix's Poisoned Pen very often. Yet I would love to hear Hornby talk about JULIET, NAKED, Michael Connelly discuss his new Harry Bosch novel, 9 DRAGONS and Louise Penny discuss being a newly minted Barnes & Noble selection. Every store -- indie or otherwise -- should make all author events available to people who can't make it to the events themselves. Exist beyond the store walls. Even if it's literally just a bookseller standing there with a Flip camera, you can bet that once you post the event online, a lot more people will be interested in that book than just the folks who were able to make it to the store.
6) Jazz up Author Events. Authors will probably be the first to tell you that they're not really celebrities. But who's to say a store can't excite their customers by making it feel like a celeb or rock star is in the house? Let me paint two scenarios for you:
Scenario 1: You're browsing in a store, quietly minding your business, and suddenly over the loudspeaker you hear, "Ladies and gentlemen, please join us in the event lounge for Neil Gaiman, signing his latest book, Something Terrible and Scary Happens and You and Your Children and Probably Your Pets Will Love It." Maybe you look up, and if you haven't read Gaiman you'll wander over. Or maybe you won't.
Scenario 2: You're browsing in a store, same stuff as above, and all of a sudden you hear the opening licks of "Enter Sandman." The guitar grows louder, the store begins to rumble, and just as James Hetfield begins to scream 'Exit light....enter niiiiiiiiight!' you hear, "Ladies and gentlemen, join us for the master of everything that goes bump in the night, Neil Gaiman!" You grab your blueberry scone and Tazo Chai and get your butt to the event area because, baby, something cool is about to go down.
Now, which of those is more likely to draw your attention? Ok, maybe that's a little much, but you get the idea. Do something different. Give authors entrance music, hype men, anything to get the attention of people who aren't already members of the choir.
7) Don't make us go elsewhere. We all love our local independents, and often go out of our way to shop with them. We don't expect them to carry every book ever written. But we've all been in a situation where we bought an author's new novel, then went to check out their other work only to find our local store doesn't have it in stock. And it's not that they're sold out - they just don't carry it. That's when we turn to the chains or online retailers. If a popular author has a new book out, make sure to have copies of their older stuff on hand so newbies can get acquainted.
8) It's all about the experience. Let's be honest -- 90% of bookstores offer the same content when it comes to what they stock. Some stores will have more foreign imports, some stores will cater more towards specific genres, and some will have a heavier lineup of author events. But what they're selling remains essentially the same. What smaller and independent stores are selling above all is the experience, the interaction. This means being personable, helpful. When I walk into a store, the last thing I want to be met by is silence. If I see clerks milling about or sitting behind a desk, and not one of them even bats an eye when I walk in, it saddens me. We don't want you to be pushy, but there's a big gulf between pushy and apathetic. Asking if a customer needs help should be the bare minimum. Many of the people who go into independent bookstores don't know what they want to buy; they're looking for advice and recommendations. This isn't Best Buy, we want to know what you think. We want that connection. If readers walk into a store and feel like they're imposing on you, they'll go somewhere they won't feel excluded. Intimate does not need to feel exclusionary.
9) Be kind to authors -- we need each other.. I've been there before, gotten an email from a bookstore threatening to cancel my appearance because I didn't have a proper link on my website. It's not because I was purposefully going out of my way to exclude them, but because back in the day I was maintaining my own site, and let's just say I know as much about coding and programming as I do about phrenology. It's easy to ask without making it into an ultimatum, especially when authors usually recommend stores to fellow authors for events. If we feel like we're being treated like cattle or reprimanded for some ticky-tack error, we might think twice before coming back. Now, we want to come back. Yet just like stores expect the support of authors and their communities, authors want to feel like they're bringing something special to your store. Don't make them feel like they have to follow your rules or else. How would you feel if somebody threatened your livelihood? I've signed in many, many bookstores. Some booksellers make you feel welcome. Others make you feel like you're a piece of meat (with the same level of emotion). Smiles cost nothing, a friendly handshake just as much. There's no better feeling than meeting booksellers, and we appreciate what you do. Most of us will not only reciprocate with such gestures, but by recommending our friends and readers to your store. It's a two-way street -- just don't make us drive it alone.
10) Books are social; make bookstores a social hub. Have events that involve book lovers, but don't necessarily revolve around books. Host single nights, temple/church groups, movies, artists across all spectrums. People who love books tend to love all sorts of culture. Bring these people to you, and they'll come back.